Hunter v. Colfax Consolidated Coal Co., 30268

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtSALINGER, J.
Citation157 N.W. 145,175 Iowa 245
Docket Number30268
Decision Date06 April 1916

157 N.W. 145

175 Iowa 245



No. 30268

Supreme Court of Iowa, Des Moines

April 6, 1916



Appeal from Jasper District Court.--JOHN F. TALBOTT, Judge.

THE defendant corporation, one that might be subject to the provisions of Chapter 147 of the Acts of the Thirty-fifth General Assembly, popularly known as the Workmen's Compensation Act, has elected to reject the provisions of it.

Plaintiff was in the employ of defendant as a miner, and injured by a fall of coal while in that employment. It is stipulated that, if he be entitled to recover at all, it may be in the sum of $ 100, with interest at six per cent. from July 24, 1914. Judgment in that sum was entered against defendant, and it appeals.--Affirmed in part. Reversed in part.

Petitions for rehearing Overruled. Affirmed in part and Reversed in part.

R. & F. Ryan, for appellant.

John T. Clarkson, for appellee.

Stipp, Perry & Starzinger and Mabry & Hickenlooper, amici curiae.


[175 Iowa 253] SALINGER, J.

One defense interposed was that the injury suffered by plaintiff was wholly due to his own negligence. Upon the issue created by this defense, defendant requested, and was denied, trial by jury; because it was the judgment of the trial court that such defense was precluded by the provisions of said act.

Appellant insists that the act is violative of the Constitution of the United States and of the state, because its provisions deny him the right to make said defense, and to have it tried by jury. If the act does not take these rights from defendant, the claim that taking them is a violation of the fundamental law is disposed of. A statute is not unconstitutional because a court misunderstands it.

Does the act deprive the employer who elects to reject the act of the right of submitting to a jury the defense that it was wholly guiltless? While, as will presently be seen, appellee overlooks the effect of the concession made by him, he does and should concede that, before the act, the master had the right to make this defense, and still has, unless the act has taken it from him. We must, then, turn to the act itself. It provides that the employer may hereafter not avail himself of either or all of the following matters:

1. That the employe "assumed the risks inherent in, or incident to, or arising out of his or her employment."

2. Assumed "the risks arising from the failure of the employer to provide and maintain a reasonably safe place to work."

3. Assumed the risks "arising from the failure of the employer to furnish reasonably safe tools and appliances."

4. That the employer "exercised reasonable care in selecting reasonably competent employes in the business."

[175 Iowa 254] 5. "That the injury was caused by the negligence of a co-employee."

Of the defenses so taken away, two, those we have numbered 2 and 3, involve the confession of specified acts of negligence on part of the employer, and an avoiding them with claim that the employe has so conducted himself as that he may not complain of injuries arising from such acts of negligence. Manifestly, these provisions but take away a shield against negligence committed by the employer. No law which merely denies the right to excuse a specified negligent act which has been committed can have any bearing on whether it be a defense that no negligent act has been done.

Eliminating the defense that the master used reasonable care to insure competent fellows for the servant is no provision the master shall pay though wholly without fault. It merely provides that proper care in one named respect alone shall not be a defense.

Taking away the defense that the injury was caused by the negligence of a co-employe does just what it does. It provides merely that the employer may not be excused because one of his servants negligently injured another--a provision which leaves entirely open whether there remains the defense that the injury is due neither to the fault of the [157 N.W. 146] fellow servant nor to a fault of the employer.

The provision that wilful negligence of the employe, with intent to cause his own injury, or negligence on his part due to his intoxication, remain defenses, deals with cases where both master and servant are or may be in varying degrees to blame, and limits the defense that the master is not liable because the servant contributed to his own injury, to contribution by wilful self-infliction or by negligence due to drunkenness. But that two specified acts of negligence on part of the plaintiff remain a defense does not establish that the employer may not show that, whoever else was to blame, or contributed, or whatever [175 Iowa 255] the mental attitude or condition of the contributor, he (the defendant) was in no manner to blame. Such a provision settles how far the negligence of the employe remains available as a defense, but does not touch the question whether the freedom of the employer from all blame remains a defense.

Nothing thus far adverted to has attempted to make the employer pay damages for injuries suffered in and because of employment given by him, where he is in no manner blameable for such injury. If the act itself has created such absolute liability, it must be done, so far as anything like doing it in terms is concerned, by that part of it which is:

" It shall be presumed [A] that the injury to the employe was the direct result and growing out of the negligence of the employer; [B] and that such negligence was the proximate cause of the injury; and in such cases the burden of proof shall rest upon the employer to rebut the presumption of negligence." Sec. 2477-m (Par. 4), Code Supp., 1913.

This is not a provision the employer has not the right to show that he was wholly free from blame, but that he must take the affirmative upon the claim that he is blameless; that the employe need not prove that the employer was at fault, but the latter must show he was not. That no more than this was intended is, we think, clear, because:

1. Without reference to whether the legislature has power to say that the employer shall pay for an injury for which he is in no manner at fault, such a provision is so radical a departure from what was the law before the enactment of this statute as that such liability should not be construed into existence, but be created by plain words of the legislature.

2. A consideration of other provisions in pari materia strongly indicates that there was no purpose to create absolute liability. For instance, Section 7 is that, if the injury is caused by a stranger and the master is made to pay compensation, he may recover over of the stranger whose fault is responsible for the injury.

[175 Iowa 256] 3. Nothing but an utterly strained construction of the words of the statute can reach the conclusion that it eliminates the defense that the employer is in no way in fault.

4. It is not a natural construction that a statute has carefully defined how that shall be proven which it declares is no longer a defense; that it prescribes how a defense shall be established and, also, that such defense shall not be asserted; that a presumption of fact which the statute says may be rebutted establishes a liability, incontestably.

II. We found it very difficult to get a clear understanding of why appellee contends that, notwithstanding the provision that the master may escape liability if he prove the injury due to no fault of his, the statute should be construed to mean that such want of fault is no defense. We conclude that the following are some of the arguments for such contention:

1. The words which declare presumption as to, and the burden of proof on, the absence of negligence on part of the employer, are addressed to cases that may arise under Section 41, Chapter 106, Acts of the Thirty-fourth General Assembly. This chapter deals with the duty of a miner to properly support the roof of his work chamber and the counter-duty of the employer, and has provision as to visitation of the place of work, and giving proper instructions.

The Compensation Act deals with many employers and employes other than those connected with mining; and the provisions of its Section 4 are limited to cases in which the employer rejects the Compensation Act of which Section 4 is a part.

Said Chapter 106, Acts of the Thirty-fourth General Assembly, is not a workmen's compensation act, and has no reference to the subject of compensation. Section 41 thereof is, in the rough, a regulation confined to the narrow subject of the duties of the mine foreman or pit boss. And neither Section 41 nor all of the chapter depend on the rejection [175 Iowa 257] of any law by the employer. It is unbelievable that the unmistakable general language found in Section 4 of the Workmen's Compensation Act--that in cases where the employer has elected to reject the provisions of an act which deals with actions between various employers and employes for personal injuries, there shall arise a presumption the master was at fault, and the burden be upon him to rebut the presumption--was intended to apply only to said statute of an earlier general assembly, to which, as seen, it can have no logical relation, and not to apply to the very act in which it is found and which, as seen, gives full scope for the operation of the section.

2. It is next urged that this provision on presumption and burden of proof refers to that part of Section 1 of the act which eliminates as a defense assuming the risk of the failure of the employer to provide and maintain a reasonably safe place to work, the risk of his failure to furnish reasonably safe tools or appliances, and the risk of his failure to select reasonably competent fellow employes.

Each of these defenses is eliminated by the act. As...

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